I was recently invited to a roundtable discussion with a dozen of the most senior people in the ad business.
Magazine publishers, media company execs, ad agency owners.
We were there to discuss what we thought was "the future of content".
We went around the table, each giving an opinion.
I said: before I could answer, I wanted to know what "content" was.
I keep hearing everyone talk about content, but I’ve never heard anyone define it, so what is it?
By the time everyone had their say, I was none the wiser.
No-one defined it because, to everyone else, it didn’t seem important to define it; it just seemed important to say it a lot: content creation, content curation, content marketing, branded content, sponsored content, high-quality content, relevant content, engaging content, mass-market content, specialist content, digital content, promoted content.
Gradually, I began to get the idea that what content actually is wasn’t important at all.
Content is seen as just stuff.
The stuff that goes into the space that’s there to be filled.
Think of a lorry.
A lorry has wheels, an engine and a cab.
And a big space on the back to be filled up with something.
It doesn’t matter what you fill it with, the lorry is the delivery system.
The lorry will do the job of delivering whatever "content" you put in the back.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s furniture, vegetables, sacks of cement or paving slabs.
It’s all just content to be delivered.
And supposing someone invents brand new lorries: brand new delivery systems.
The new delivery systems can get your "content" there faster, cheaper, more efficiently.
Suddenly, it doesn’t matter what the content is, the new delivery systems are the exciting part.
And there is my problem with the word "content".
"It doesn’t matter what the content is."
The content is now just something to fill up the space; the delivery systems are what’s important, not the content.
And that’s the massive shift that has happened in our business.
"Content" may only be a word, but it signifies a total shift in emphasis.
Previously, the most important thing was to solve a business problem.
Then to work out what contribution marketing could make to that.
Then have advertising deliver that solution in the most impactful way.
That was the big idea that would change behaviour.
The delivery system facilitated getting the idea in front of the right people.
But the important thing was the idea.
To put it simply: it was idea first, delivery system second.
But by relegating the idea to content, it becomes far less important.
The delivery system must now come before the idea, before the "content".
So changing the word signifies the complete change in the business.
In case I was wrong, I looked up "content" in the dictionary.
"Content (noun): everything that is inside a container; the contents of a box."
So there it is: we’re in the shipping business.
That’s what happened to what we used to call "the idea".
The idea has become whatever goes into the box: just content.
It could be anything, it’s not important.
With that in mind, let’s revisit the original question: "How do you see the future of content: the unimportant stuff that gets delivered by efficient, exciting new delivery systems?"
Dave Trott, former chairman and ECD of The Gate London, is a copywriter, blogger and author. His latest book is One Plus One Equals Three.
Update: Campaign UK has published a followup to this column, Content without ideas isn't content: a retort to Dave Trott, by Richard Cable, digital publishing director for Bartle Bogle Hegarty.